By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CHIEF ADVANCE IN THE PROCESS OF MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY, a kind of hitchhiker on the back of the digital revolution, has been the unprecedented scope of choice conferred on the shooter. Much is written about how great pictures are selective extractions from the endless flow of time…how random and important seconds are snatched from that flood tide and “captured”. However, the emphasis, for most of the history of the medium has been on many of us getting that one fortunate moment, with few options for re-takes or even a variety of attempts from which to select our final winners.
If this seems to be an arbitrary distinction between amateurs and pros, well, it sorta is, and that’s because of how the technology and the economics of photography work on each other. Before roll film, even a professional had difficulty in taking multiple frames of the same subject in search of a keeper. The media were unwieldy and expensive. Soon, the consumer-based photo market, created by the first simple mass-produced cameras paired with film, allowed for slightly more breathing room for the average snapper to take more than one crack at his/her quarry…to say, try several different angles on a subject rather than one, but, again, the cost of purchasing and processing film tended to divide the photographic world into amateur and professional ranks. Quite simply, a professional, out of necessity or opportunity or both, could afford an investment in enough film to create choices, or multiple ways of seeing the same thing, whereas the amateur has to budget his shots and invest less money in the pursuit overall.
Digital democratized that entire process, effectively shrinking the photographer’s budget to the purchase of the camera and an occasional memory card (which itself could be wiped and re-used). We immediately shifted from a plan-as-you-go mentality to an all-you-can-eat, shooting-for-free model, which, in turn, changed the results of our picture making. Now newbies can stand in the batter’s box and swing away endlessly in pursuit of their final result, just as the pros always could. Any subject can be given the treatment of an essay, and we have the luxury of going back for seconds, thirds, or whatever is required to develop and eventually deliver on an idea. The image seen above, had I taken it in the age of film, would have been the product of a few snaps, not, as happened digitally, the work of over an hour of walking, planning, experimenting. In the old days, only a pro would have been free to shoot several rolls in search of an iconic image. Now anyone can do it, simply and cheaply.
Photographers who experience this miracle of immersion as everyday reality are freer than shooters in any previous age. We can whittle away years of the ponderous failures that used to take years to accumulate in a matter of weeks or even days. Mistakes are still necessary for the training of the eye, but being able to speed up the process of stylistic evolution is a true liberation. The science and the economics of photography are finally aligned with each other, and although it took some time, time is, finally, on our side, whenever we endeavor to photograph anything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEW PHOTOGRAPHERS TYPICALLY EXPERIENCE A MAJOR DISCONNECT between what they visualize and what their camera can realize. The gap between what you want and what your gear can deliver is initially very wide, mainly because you haven’t yet learned how to tell your camera what you want.
This gap is usually narrowed as you simply spend enough time with your equipment. But a true pairing, a real Harry-Potter-sorting-hat bond between yourself and a camera calls for a much deeper knowledge….of your needs, certainly, but more importantly, of what your camera is capable of doing for you. Sure, the more you shoot, the better you generally get at asking it to perform specific tasks, but to cross over into excellence you also will know more precisely what that device’s strengths and limits are.
Hundreds of factors determine what makes a camera right for you. Is the camera too basic to deliver, or too advanced for you to handle? Is its lens unsharp at the corners? Does your shutter lag? Do you want the camera to technically underperform to achieve an artistic effect? Can it reliably be counted on to shoot 95% of what you need, especially if it’s the only camera you can pack? How is its color rendition, its speed, it flash output, etc., etc.?
The image seen here is not really an example of anything except that, on the day I took the subway into Manhattan to attempt it, I knew I would not want to walk the city sidewalks laden with equipment. Certainly I did not achieve everything I was after with this shot, taken inside the lobby of the Chrysler building. However, I now know that I brought the one lens that gave me half a shot at getting something. What I’m saying is that, if I hadn’t known my equipment, I would not have been able to to even try to make that choice.
You will eventually have spent enough time with your cameras that you will know within an instant which one to grab for any given job. You’ll prepare better, waste less time, and ask “what happened?” far less often. And from that toolbox, one camera, one nearly perfect link to your skills and vision, will eventually emerge over all the others as the predominant “go-to” in your arsenal. And once that pairing is complete, you’ll be able to shoot anything, anywhere, under any conditions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS’ EQUIPMENT CASES ARE LIKE MARY POPPINS’ CARPET BAG: once they’re opened, you are just certain someone’s going to haul a floor lamp out of the thing. I myself hate being laden with a punishing load of gear when on a shoot, so I spend as much time as possible mentally rehearsing before heading out, trying to take just one lens which will do 90% of what I’ll need and leaving the rest of the toys at home. I developed this habit mainly because most of my work is done in a field orientation. Were I more consistently a studio homebody, then I could have everything I own just inches away from me at all times. So it goes.
What happens with my kind of shooting is that you fall in and out of love with certain gear, with different optics temporarily serving as your “go to” lens. I personally think it’s good to “go steady” with a lens for extended periods of time, simply because you learn to make pictures in any setting, regardless of any arbitrary limits imposed by that lens. This eventually makes you more open to experimentation, simply because you either shoot what you brung or you don’t shoot at all.
This work habit means that I may have half a dozen lenses that go unused for extended periods of time. It’s the bachelor’s dilemma: while I was going steady with one, I wasn’t returning phone calls and texts from the others. And over time, I may actually become estranged from a particular lens that at one time was my old reliable. I may have found a better way to do what it did with other equipment, or I may have ceased to make images that it was particularly designed for….or maybe I just got sick to death of it and needed to see other people.
But just as I think you should spend a protracted and exclusive period with a new lens, a dedicated time during which you use it for nearly everything, I also believe that you should occasionally re-bond with a lens you hardly use anymore, making that optic, once again, your go-to, at least for a while. Again, there is a benefit to having to use what you have on hand to make things happen. Those of us who began with cheap fixed-focus toy cameras learned early how to work around the limits of our gear to get the results we wanted, and the same idea applies to a lens that may not do everything, but also may do a hell of a lot more than we first gave it credit for.
Re-establishing a bond with an old piece of gear is like dating your ex. It may just be a one-off lunch, or you could decide that you both were really made for each other all along.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE CERTAINLY MANY MORE PICTURES BEING TAKEN than there are great pictures taken. That’s as it should be. Anything at which you wish to be excellent only comes about once you’ve learned what not to do, and that means lots of errors, lots of images that you feel compelled to destroy almost as quickly as you’ve created them. You must, must, must, take all the bad pictures right alongside the good ones. At first, the garbage will outnumber the groceries.
And then, some day, it doesn’t.
I am an A.B.S. (Always Be Shooting) shooter. I mean, I make myself at least try to make a picture every….single…day. No excuses, no regrets, no exceptions. Reason? I simply don’t know (and neither do you) where the good pictures are going to come from. For me to give myself permission not to try on a given day means I am risking that one of those potentially golden pictures will never be born. Period period period.
In a way, I often think photo technique guides from years gone by had things backwards. That is, they often made suggestions of great opportunities to take great pictures. You know the list: at a party: on a vacation: to capture special moments with loved ones, etc., etc. However, none of these traditional “how-to” books included a category called “just for the hell of it”, “why not?”, or, in the digital era, “whattya got to lose? You’re shooting for free!” These days, there are virtually no barriers to making as many pictures as you want, quickly, and with more options for control and creativity, both before and after the shutter click. So that old “ideas” list needs to be re-thought.
To my thinking, here’s the one (yes, I said ONE) suggestion for making pictures, the only one that matters:
TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY.
And to purify your thinking, here’s my larger list, that of the most commonly used excuses not to shoot. You know ’em. You’ve used ’em. And by doing so, you’ve likely blown the chance at a great picture. Or not. You won’t know, because you didn’t TAKE THE SHOT ANYWAY. Here are the excuses, in all their shameful glory:
I haven’t got the right lens/camera/gear. There’s not enough light. I don’t do these kinds of pictures well. I don’t have my “real” camera. There’s nothing to take a picture “of”. Everyone takes a picture of this. I’ll do it later. It probably won’t be any good. There are too many people in the picture. There isn’t enough time.
Train yourself to repeat take the shot anyway, like a mantra, whenever any of these alibis spring into your head. Speed up your learning curve. Court the uncertain. Roll the dice. Harvest order from chaos. Stop waiting for your shot, your perfect day, your ideal opportunity.
Take the shot. Anyway.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY, IF IT TRULY IS AN ART (and I’m assuming you believe it is), can never get to a place where it’s “done”. There is no Finished, there ain’t no Clock Out, and there shouldn’t be any Good Enough. There is only where you are and the measurable distance between there and where you want to be. And, once you get there, the chains get moved down the field to the next first down, and the whole drill starts over again.
That means that, as photographers, we are always just about to find ourselves uncomfortable, or need to try to make ourselves that way. Standing still equals stale, which, in turn, equals “why bother?” Sure, the first step toward a new plateau always feels like walking off a cliff, but it needs to, if we’re to improve. If your work feels like something you’ve done before, chances are it is. And if a new assignment or challenge doesn’t come from outside yourself, then you’ve got to do something to put the risk back in the process.
You can write your own prescription. Shoot all day with a limited camera. Do everything in b&w. Make yourself compose shots that are the dead opposite of what you believe looks “right”. Use the “wrong” lens for the assignment at hand. Force yourself to do an entire day’s work in the same aperture, shutter speed, or white balance. Just throw some kind of monkey wrench into your routine, before the routine becomes the regular rhythm (spelled “rut”) of your work. The words comfort and create don’t fit comfortably in the same sentence. Be okay with that.
We can’t always count on crazed bosses, tight deadlines or visionary mentors to nudge us toward the next best version of ourselves. Learn how to kick yourself in the butt and you’ll always be in problem-solving mode. That means more mistakes, which in turn means a speedier learning curve. You never learn anything repeating your past successes, so don’t curl up next to them like some comfortable chair. Put it all out there. Make the imperfect day work for you, and pray that there’s another one waiting after that.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH YOU TAKE IS OF CONSEQUENCE.
That doesn’t mean that every subject you shoot will “matter”, or that every mood you capture will be important. Far from it. However, every frame you shoot will yield the most positive thing you could hope for in your development. Feedback. This worked. God, this didn’t. Try again with more of this. One more time, but change the angle. The light. The approach. The objective. Nothing that you shoot is time wasted, since the positive and negative information gleaned is all building toward your next ah-ha miracle.
Your greatest work has to come as the total of all the building blocks of all the little details you teach yourself to sweat. And that is why you must, I repeat with religious fervor, Always Be Shooting. Something from a photo that won’t change the world will wind up in the photo that will. The what-the-heck experiment of today’s shot is the foundational bedrock of tomorrow’s. You are always going to be your most important teacher, and you get better faster by giving your muscles lots of exercise.
Light changes, those hundreds of shadows, flickers, hot spots and glows that appear around your house for minutes at a time during every day, are the easiest, fastest way to try something…anything. A window throws a stray ray onto your floor for three minutes. Stick something in it and shoot it. A cloud shifts and bathes your living room in gold for thirty seconds. Place a subject in there to see how the light plays over its contours. Shoot it, move it, shoot it again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The image at left came when a shaft of late afternoon light shot through my bathroom window for about three minutes. I grabbed the first thing I saw that looked interesting, framed it up, and shot it. Learned a little about shadows in the process. Nothing that will change the world. Still.
Many cheap, simple opportunities for learning get dumped in your lap everyday. Don’t wait for masterpiece subject matter or miracle light. Get incrementally better shooting with what you have on hand. Grab the little glows, and use spare minutes to see what they can do to your pictures. And, on the day when the miracle saunters by, you will be ready.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANYONE WHO REGULARLY VISITS THESE PAGES already knows that I advocate of doing as much of your photography in as personal and direct a way as possible. While I am completely astonished by the number of convenience items and automatic settings offered to the casual photographer in today’s cameras, I believe that many of these same features can also delay the process by which people take true hands-on control of their image-making. I regard anything that gets in between the shooter and the shutter as a potential distraction, even a drag on one’s evolution.
Tools are not technique. Here are two parallel truths of photography: (1) some people with every gizmo in the toy store take lousy pictures. (2) some people with no technical options whatsoever create pictures that stun the world.
From my view, you can either subscribe to the statement, “I can’t believe what this camera can do!” or to one which says, “I wonder what I can make my camera do for me!” The very controls built into cameras to make things convenient for newcomers are the first things that must be abandoned once you are ready to move beyond newcomer status. At some point, you learn that there is no way any camera can ever contain enough magic buttons to give you uniformly excellent results without your active participation. You simply cannot engineer a device that will always deliver perfection and perpetually protect you from your own human limits.
Innovators never innovate by surrounding themselves with the comfortable and the familiar. For photographers, that means making decisions with your pictures and living with the uneven results in the name of self-improvement. This is a challenge because manufacturers seductively argue that such decisions can be made painlessly by the camera acting alone. But guess what. If you don’t actively care about your photos, no one else will either. There may not be anything technically wrong with your camera’s “choices”. But they are not your choices, and eventually, you will want more. The structure that at first made you feel safe will, in time, start to feel more like a cage.
Tools are not technique.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR, IN THE DAYS OF FILM, WHEN THE EASTMAN KODAK COMPANY used to see a predictable surge in their annual sales, all tied to our ties to our loved ones. Each holiday season, the world’s biggest manufacturer of film reminded us that cameras were not only a great gift idea, they were the most important thing to be found under our respective Christmas trees. Their tremendously successful “Open Me First” ad campaign said it all: we couldn’t begin to truly experience all that family-centric holiday joy without a Kodak camera on hand to capture every giggle of surprise. The message was: shoot a lot of film. And if that doesn’t perfectly capture the perfect season, shoot more.
Ironically, it was the near death of film that finally freed us up from the single biggest constraint on our photographic freedom, that being the constraint of cost. Digital media, and the ease and ubiquity of cameras of all price points finally have freed the non-pros and the non-rich, making the admonition Always Be Shooting much more irresistibly urgent. We can afford miscalculations. We can afford do-overs. We can fix our worst mistakes without converting a hall bathroom into Dad’s Wide, Weird World Of Chemicals. We can gradually develop a concept over many “takes”, and we can salvage more of those visions. We can win more often.
The great photographer Ernest Haas once exhorted his students to “look for the ‘a-ha’ moment”, which meant not to be content with the first, or even the fifth framing of an idea in your viewfinder (okay, display screen). Asked in a lecture what the best wide-angle lens was, he quipped “two steps backward”, meaning that your best solution to a so-called technical problem is actually within yourself. Change your view, and change the outcome. The shot at the top of this post, as one example, only came at the end of ten other attempts at the same scene, all shot within a few minutes’ time. In the days of film, I would have had to settle for a much earlier version. I simply wouldn’t have kept clicking long enough to realize what I wanted from the subject.
Always Be Shooting doesn’t mean just clicking away madly, hoping that a jewel will magically emerge from a random batch of frames. It means keeping yourself in seeking mode long enough for ideas to emerge, then shooting beyond that to get those ideas right. Film made it possible to all of us to dream of capturing great memories. But it is the end of film that makes it possible for us to refine more of those memories before all those fleeting smiles have a chance to fade out of our reach.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE’S NOTHING WORSE THAN COMING HOME FROM A SHOOT realizing that you only went halfway on things. Maybe there was another way to light her face. Did I take a wide enough bracket of exposures on that sunset? Maybe I should have framed the doorway two different ways, with and without the shadow.
And so on. Frequently, after cranking off a few lucky frames, we’re like kids walking home from confession, feeling fine and pure at first, and then remembering, “D’OH! I forgot to tell Father about the time I sassed my teacher!”
Too Catholic? (And downright boring on the sins, by the way..but, hey) Point is, there is always one more way to visualize nearly everything you care enough about to make a picture of. For one thing, we are always shooting either the cause or the effect of things. The great facial reaction and the surprise that induces it. The deep pool of rain and the portentous sky that sent it. The force that’s released in an explosion and the origin of that force. When we’re there, when the magic of whatever we came to see is happening, right here, right now, we need to think up, down, sideways for pictures of all of it, or as many as we can capture within our power….’cause once you’re home, safe and dry, it’s all different. The story perishes like a soap bubble. Shoot while you’re there. Shoot for all the story is worth.
It can be simple things. I saw the above image at one of the lesser outbuildings at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary teaching compound in Scottsdale, Arizona. An abstract pattern made from over-hanging strips of canvas,used as makeshift shade on a path. But when I reversed my angle and shot the sidewalk instead of the sky, I saw the effect of that cause, and it appealed to me too (see left). One composition favored color, while the other seemed to dictate black & white, but they both could serve my purpose in different ways. Click and click.
It bears remembering that the only picture that is guaranteed to be a failure is the one you didn’t take. Flip things around. Re-imagine the order, the role of things. Go for one more version of what’s “important”.
Hey, you’re there anyway.…..
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HAVE A WANDERING EYE. Not due to muscular weakness or marital infidelity, but to a malady particular to long-time photographers. After decades of shoots big and little, I find that I am looking for pictures nearly everywhere, so much so that, what appears to many normal people to be formless space or unappealing detail might be shaping up in my mind as My Next Project. The non-obvious sings out ever louder to me as I age, and may find its way into my pictures more often than the Celebrated Scenic Wonder, the Historically Important Site or the Big Lights In The Sky that attract 99% of the photo traffic in any given locality. Part of this has to do with having been disappointed in the past by the Giant Whatsis or whatever the key area attraction is, while being delightfully surprised by little things that, for me, deserve to be seen, re-seen, or testified to.
This makes me a lousy traveling companion at times, since I may be fixated on something merely “on the way” to what everyone else wants to see. Let’s say we’re headed to the Great Falls. Now who wants to photograph the small gravel path that leads to the road that leads to the Great Falls? Well, me. As a consequence, the sentences I hear most often, in these cases, are variations on “are you coming?“, “what are you looking at?” or, “Oh my God, are you stopping again????”.
Thing is, some of my favorite shots are on staircases, in hallways, around a blind corner, or the Part Of The Building Where No One Ever Goes. Photography is sometimes about destination but more often about journey. That’s what accounts for the staircase above image. It’s a little-traveled part of a museum that I had never been in, but was my escape the from gift shop that held my wife mesmerized. I began to wonder and wander, and before long I was in the land of Sir, We Don’t Allow The Public Back Here. Oddly, it’s easier to plead ignorance of anything at my age, plus no one wants to pick on an old man, so I mutter a few distracted “Oh, ‘scuse me”s and, occasionally, walk away with something I care about. Bonus: I never have any problem shooting as much as I want of such subjects, because, you know, they’re not “important”, so it’s not like queueing up to be the 7,000th person of the day doing their take on the Eiffel Tower.
Now, this is not a foolproof process. Believe me, I can take these lesser subjects and make them twice as boring as a tourist snap of a major attraction, but sometimes….
And when you hit that “sometimes”, dear friends, that’s what makes us raise a glass in the lobby bar later in the day.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE CHARGES GIVEN TO ALL PHOTOGRAPHERS IS TO MARK THE PASSAGE OF TIME, to chronicle and record, to give testimony to a rapidly vanishing world. Certainly interpretation, fantasy, and other original conceptions are equally important for shooters, but there has been a kind of unspoken responsibility to use the camera to bear witness. This is especially difficult in a world bent on obliterating memory, of dismantling the very sites of history.
Humorist and historian Bill Bryson’s wonderful book, One Summer: America 1927 frames the amazing news stories of its title year around its most singular event, the solo transatlantic flight of Charles A. Lindbergh. A sad coda to the story reveals that nothing whatever remains of Roosevelt Field, the grassy stretch on Long Island from which the Lone Eagle launched himself into immortality, with the exception of a small plaque mounted on the back of an escalator in the mall that bears the field’s name. Last week, hauled along on a shopping trip to the mall with relatives, I made my sad pilgrimage to said plaque, lamenting, as Bryson did, that there is nothing more to photograph of the place where the world changed forever.
Then I got a little gift.
The mall is under extensive renovation as I write this, and much of the first floor ceiling has been stripped back to support beams, electrical systems and structural gridwork. Framed against the bright bargains in the mall shops below, it’s rather ugly, but, seen as a whimsical link to the Air Age, it gave me an idea. All wings of the Roosevelt Field mall feature enormous skylights, and several of them occur smack in the middle of some of the construction areas. Composing a frame with just these two elements, a dark, industrial space and a light, airy radiance, I could almost suggest the inside of a futuristic aerodrome or hangar, a place of bustling energy sweeping up to an exhilarating launch hatch. To get enough detail in this extremely contrasty pairing, and yet not add noise to the darker passages, I stayed at ISO 100, but slowed to 1/30 sec. and a shutter setting of f/3.5. I still had a near-blowout of the skylight, saving just the grid structure, but I was really losing no useful detail I needed beyond blue sky. Easy choice.
Thus, Roosevelt Field, for me, had taken wing again, if only for a moment, in a visual mash-up of Lindbergh, Flash Gordon, Han Solo, and maybe even The Rocketeer. In aviation, the dream’s always been the thing anyway.
And maybe that’s what photography is really for…trapping dreams in a box.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ONCE HEARD AN OLD PHOTOGRAPHER SPEAK OF CREATIVE CHOICES AS “picking the right wagon to haul your goods to market”. By that, he meant that format, film, frame size, lens type or aperture were all just means to an end. If one wouldn’t take your wagon all the way to a finished picture, use another. He had no special sentiment or ironclad loyalty to any one tool, since there was, and is, only one real goal in any of photography: get the image you came to get.
It’s often hard to remember that simple rule, since we tend to associate the success of certain pictures with our pet camera, our sweet spot aperture, our favorite hunk of glass. But there’s also a knack to knowing when a particular tool that is wrong, wrong, wrong for almost anything might, for the project at hand, be just perfect.
I have one such tool, and, on rare occasions, the very properties that make me generally curse it as a cheap chunk of junk can make me praise it as just what the doctor ordered. It’s an Opteka 0.35, a screw-on lens adapter that simulates (to put it kindly) at least the dimensions of a true fisheye, without the enormous layout of dough, or, sadly, the optical precision of a true dedicated lens. It’s fuzzy at the edges, regardless of your aperture. It sprays chromatic shmears all over those edges, and so you can’t even dream of sharpness beyond the third of the image that’s in the dead center of the lens. It was, let’s be honest, a cheap toy bought by a cheap photographer (me) as a shortcut. For 99% of any ulta-wide imaging, it’s akin to taking a picture through a jellyfish bladder.
Since the very essence of fisheye photography is as a distortion of reality, the Opteka can be a helping hand toward a fantasy look. Overall sharpness in a fisheye shot can certainly be a desired effect, but, given your subject matter, it need not be a deal breaker.
In the case of some recent monochrome studies of trees I’ve been undertaking, for example, the slightly supernatural effect I’m after isn’t dependent on a “real” look, and running the Opteka in black and white with a little detail boost on the back end gives me the unreal appearance that is right for what I want to convey about the elusive, even magical elements of trees. The attachment is all kinds of wrong for most other kinds of images, but, again, the idea is to get the feel you’re looking for…in that composition, on that day, under those circumstances.
I’ve love to get to the day when one lens will do everything in all instances, but I won’t live that long, and, chances are, neither will you. Meanwhile, I gotta get my goods to market, and for the slightly daft look of magickal trees, the Opteka is my Leica.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IGNORANCE, IN PHOTOGRAPHY, CERTAINLY IS NOT BLISS. However, exposure to that selfsame know-nothing-ness can lead to a kind of bliss, since it can eventually lead you to excellence, or at least improvement. Here and now, I am going to tell you that all the photographic tutorials and classes in history cannot teach you one millionth as much as your own rotten pictures. Period.
Trick is, you have to keep your misbegotten photographic children, and keep them close. Love them. Treasure the hidden reservoir of warnings and no-nos they contain and mine that treasure for all it’s worth. Of course, doing this takes real courage, since your first human instinct, understandingly, will be to do a Norman Bates on them: stab them to death in the shower and bury their car in the swamp out back.
I have purposely kept the results of the first five rolls of film I ever shot for over forty years now. They are almost all miserable failures, and I mean that with no aw-shucks false modesty whatever. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that these images are the Fort Knox of ignorance, an ignorance taller than most minor mountain ranges, an ignorance that, if it was used like some garbage to create energy, could light Europe for a year. We’re talking lousy.
But mine was a divine kind of ignorance. At the age of fourteen, I not only knew nothing, I could not even guess at how much nothing I knew. It’s obvious, as you troll through these Kodak-yellow boxes of Ektachrome slides, that I knew nothing of the limits of film, or exposure, or my own cave-dweller-level camera. Indeed, I remember being completely mystified when I got my first look at my slides as they returned from the processor (an agonizing wait of about three days back then), only to find, time after time, that nothing of what I had seen in my mind had made it into the final image. It wasn’t that dark! It wasn’t that color! It wasn’t…..working. And it wasn’t a question of, “what was I thinking?”, since I always had a clear vision of what I thought the picture should be. It was more like, “why didn’t that work?“, which, at that stage of my development, was as easy to answer as, say, “why don’t I have a Batmobile?” or “why can’t I make food out of peat moss?”
But holding onto the slides over the years paid off. I gradually learned enough to match up Lousy Slide “A” with Solution”B”, as I learned what to ask of myself and a camera, how to make the box do my bidding, how to build on the foundation of all that failure. And the best thing about keeping all of the fizzles in those old cartons was that I also kept the few slides that actually worked, in spite of a fixed-focus, plastic lens, light-leaky box camera and my own glorious stupidity. Because, since I didn’t know what I could do, I tried everything, and, on a few miraculous occasions, I either guessed right, or God was celebrating Throw A Mortal A Bone Day.
Thing is, I was reaching beyond what I knew, what I could hope to accomplish. Out of that sheer zeal, you can eventually learn to make photographs. But you have to keep growing beyond your cameras. It’s easy when it’s a plastic hunk of garbage, not so easy later on. But you have to keep calling on that nervy, ignorant fourteen-year-old, and giving him the steering wheel. It’s the only way things get better.
You can’t learn from your mistakes until you room with them for a semester or two. And then they can teach you better than anyone or anything you will ever encounter, anywhere.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE THINGS I OCCASIONALLY MISS ABOUT WORKING WITH PRIMITIVE CAMERAS is that the terms of success and failure are so stark. As Yoda says, you either do or do not…there is no “try”. If you have a limited piece of gear, it will always be capable (or incapable) of exactly the same things. That argument is settled, and so you have to find good pictures where they naturally occur….truly thinking outside (or without) the box.
The fact that you will get little or no extra help from the camera is initially limiting, but also, in a strange way, freeing.
On the other hand, the better your equipment, the more opportunities you have to counter iffy lighting conditions in your subjects. Photography today is about almost never having to say, “I couldn’t get the shot”…..at least not because of a lack of sufficient light. It’s just one more imperfect thing that shooting on full auto “protects” you from. But the argument could be made that ultra-smart cameras give you an output that, over time, can be stunningly average. The camera is making so many decisions of its own, in comparison to your measly little button flick, that every shot you “take” is pushing you further and further away from assuming active control of what happens.
Hunting for images that you could capture with virtually no “help” from your camera is a more active process, since it involves planning. It means looking for pictures that your camera may not be able to grab without your specific input. And one great way is to shoot images that don’t matter in themselves, so that you are letting the light, and not the subject, be the entire story. That, and shooting on manual.
Back yards are great because they are convenient stages for light tracking. You can see the light conditions shift over the course of an entire day. Better still, it’s familiar territory that can only become more familiar, since it’s so close at hand, and available anytime. Since you will have more “what am I gonna shoot?” days than “amazing” days over a lifetime, fill them up by giving yourself a seminar in “this is what the light does”. Believe me, something worth keeping will happen.
Early morning, just after dawn, is the best time to work, because the minute-to-minute changes are so markedly unique. Wait too long and you lose your window. Or maybe you’re there in just another few minutes, when something just as good may present itself. I also like to work early because, living in the desert, I will have hours and hours of harsh, untamed light every day unless I plan ahead. It’s just too retina-roastingly bright, too much of the time.
Edward Steichen taught himself light dynamics by spending months shooting the same object in the same setting. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of frames where nothing changed but the light. He put in the time taking scads of images he knew he would never use, just to give him a fuller understanding of how many ways there were to render an object. He benefited, zillions of frames later, when he applied that knowledge to subjects that did matter.
The greatest photographer of the 20th century became “that guy” because he was willing to take more misses than anyone else in the game, in order to get a higher yield of hits down the road.
Shooting just for a better understanding of light is the best photo school there is, and it’s cheap and easy in the digital age. No chemicals, no glass plates, nothing in the way but yourself and what you are willing to try.
I like the odds.
(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye)
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